Guest contributor Thomas Vitkowski shares his thoughts of the Islanders half way into the season.
If at the beginning of the season someone told you the Islanders would have 63 points and a Metro division lead at the All Star Break, I think all of us would have taken that immediately. What’s even more impressive is HOW the Islanders got there.
Dominating performances against the Rangers, Lightning and Penguins. Impressive wins versus the Ducks, Blackhawks and Jets. Protecting home ice going 16-4. A 15-2 record versus the Metro which in prior years was a major problem. It’s been an exciting first half to the season. One of the most impressive stats is that the Islanders have outshot their opponents by 279 shots over 46 games, an average of just over 6 shots per game. To put that in perspective the other top Metro teams: Penguins, Rangers and Capitals have outshot their opponents by 48, 46, and 50 each respectively. The Islanders are nearly double that advantage combined and reflect how well the Islanders have done at controlling the play in most of their games so far.
I think there were 2 key points in the first half. Both of them had us worried about a potential prolonged slump. First on November 5th heading into Anaheim after dropping 3 straight (looking bad at home against Winnipeg and horrendous in Colorado) the Islanders went on to defeat the Ducks 3-2 in OT and went on to go 11-2 during the rest of November. Second on January 9th the Islanders trailed 2-1 late in New Jersey after 2 horrible performances in Vancouver and Edmonton, JT took over the game using his bank shot to tie it and a great steal to win it in OT. The Islanders went 5-1 from that game through the All Star break.
I was at all but one of the home games this year, here is my take on what I have seen this year.
THE ACQUISTIONS: The off season moves have all worked well except for Conacher. Boychuk, Leddy, Kulemin and of course Halak have all been fantastic. Grabovski started strong but he simply has not been the same since his concussion vs. the Sharks game 4 of this year. His recent injury came at an inopportune time as he scored a goal with JT/KO and was about to get 1st line ice time. I think there is little doubt that Halak has been the MVP of this team. Since his slow start, Halak has gone 22-5 with a 2.16 GAA and a .916 save percentage. Islander country hasn’t seen goaltending like this in ages.
DEFENSE: It’s been better this year, but there has to be some concern that of the current 8 playoff teams in the East the Islanders have allowed the most goals at 129. The arrivals of Boychuk and Leddy has taken some of the responsibility off of Hamonic and allowed him to fit more into a 2nd line pairing role this year. Hickey has been solid, he has chipped in with 15 points on offense and is under rated in my view. The problem areas: Visnovsky is now dealing with his 2nd injury of the year and de Haan has really regressed in his sophomore year. A lot of bad turnovers and poor puck decisions in his own end that seem to happen every game. While Donovan looked good his first few games, both him and Strait are a liabilities on the ice. It probably won’t happen (especially now with Pulock hurt) but you have to wonder if this team would be better off with Pulock and his booming shot up here.
OFFENSE: The Islanders have not had problems scoring goals, scoring 151 this year and of the current 8 Metro playoff teams only trail the Lightning in goals by 5. JT has been a different player since the Christmas break, which hopefully is a sign that his knee is improving. Since then he has gone 8-8-16 +3. I joked earlier in the year that Capuano had a lotto ball number machine behind the bench as he was changing lines way too often for my taste, but he has not done that as much lately and looks to have found something now with Grabner-Nelson-Kulemin on line 3. They have looked fantastic the last few games. Ryan Strome has looked like a totally different player this year and seems to be involved in every game. He’s 3rd on the team on scoring with 33 points, a team leading +16 and has made everyone around him better. Having 3 lines that score makes this team far more difficult to play against. The only criticism I would have of Capuano here is he claims to reward guys with ice time if they are playing well yet in the most recent game Grabner and Kulemin had 3 goals and 2 assists but yet only played 11:38 and 10:35 respectively. Anders Lee has also been another nice find scoring many big goals for this team and giving the team a front of the net presence.
The 4th line early in the year was taking a lot of bad penalties, but has been a key component in the last 20 games or so and even chipping in big goals. One that comes to mind was Martin’s goal to tie it on Dec 15 vs the devils in the 3rd. He came flying down the right side and whipped one past Kinkaid. The Islanders went on to win in the shootout. I think the hit totals sometimes can be misleading, but there is no arguing they changed the flow of the game in the 3rd with one shift against the Flyers.
Without a doubt the player who sparks the most debate is Josh Bailey. I still believe this is a weak point on this team as he has played 16 games on the 1st line without scoring a goal with JT/KO and has had very few primary assists. In the last 14 games he has 3 goals: an empty netter, into an open net on the PP vs the Flyers and a tipped shot on the PP in NJ. He has accumulated a lot of secondary assists which doesn’t tell the whole story in my view. In watching the 1st line most of the time it’s JT/KO doing all the work in the offensive zone with Bailey barely involved. A lot of people will point to his defense, but that comes and goes as well. He had a solid game at MSG but in Montreal fell asleep which lead to an early goal in the 2nd period. He’s weak one on one, doesn’t have much of a shot (ask yourself could he have scored the goal Grabner did against the Flyers last game) and looks slow. Ideally the Islanders need someone who can finish on that line, especially come playoff time.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The penalty kill can be summed up one word: Dreadful. This has been going on for 4 years, the Islanders PK this year is at 74.4% and since ’11-12 it’s an abysmal 78.6% overall (165 GA on 772 Attempts). People like to blame Cronin but I do believe this is a system problem that starts with Capuano. Capuano said in the press conference on Dec 15th versus the Devils that they decided on the late penalty to be more aggressive on the PK. From that point through the Ranger game the Islanders went 25-27 on the PK. The best stretch all year. Inexplicably they stopped being aggressive the next game vs Pitt and have now allowed 5 PPG’s the last 8 times shorthanded. Unless they stay aggressive this could be a real problem with any potential post season run. Grabner is not out nearly enough on the PK since he’s been back, which I hope to see change in the 2nd half.
The Islanders are currently 13th in PP% at 19.2%. They clearly are a better unit when Boychuk is on the top unit and while there is room for improvement, it’s been decent so far.
BACKUP GOALTENDER: To say it’s been hideous is an understatement. Management has clearly lost confidence in Chad Johnson and it’s not hard to see why. You have to wonder how a goalie goes from a .925 save pct. last year to a .870 save pct. this year. Johnson played 27 games last year and 13 this year so you would think the amount of playing time is something he should be used to. The backup goalie situation is a 2 fold problem 1) You give yourself a lesser chance of winning those games and 2) You burn Halak out. Halak’s performance seems to slip when he plays more often He’s only played 50 games in his career one time, playing 57 games for the Blues in 2010-2011 and is currently on pace to play 60 games.
There are a lot of reasons to be excited as the back half of the season starts with many positives to draw on. If a few improvements are made we hopefully can see one final playoff run at the Old Barn.